Conflicts are a part of every relationship. To avoid conflict means avoiding a deeper connection with others. And while that might fly with some less important relationships, it’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to marriage and those closest to you. The reality is that most people avoid conflict because they’re just not confident in handling it well, and they think the potential harm outweighs the potential good. If people saw conflict as a way to deeper intimacy instead of likely rejection, we’d all be fighting a lot more and a lot better with one another.
There are books and books worth of material to help improve your ability to connect and resolve conflict well, but I’m going to cover enough for you in this five-minute read to walk away with seven things that can help move you in the right direction.
1. Watch Out for Flooding
What makes a conflict a conflict is that it means it is something important to us. Important enough to stir up some powerful emotions. And while those emotions are important for you to understand and to empower you to speak up and say something, those emotions can also overwhelm you. This is called “flooding.” When it happens, it’s a lot harder to think clearly and speak reasonably.
2. Call a Timeout for Adults
A lot of times kids need a timeout when they’re way too upset and flooded with their own anger. Timeouts can be seen as punitive, but they’re also helpful ways for times when a child’s emotions exceed their ability to articulate and resolve those emotions well. The same is true for adults. When we’re flooded, we need to know how to call timeouts on ourselves.
3. Have Self-Understanding
If you think of conflicts as ways to determine a winner and loser, then you’ve already lost the conflict. Healthy conflicts are about striving for ways to be understood and to understand another person. But in order to be understood, you have to understand yourself first.
If you’re waiting and expecting the other person to “get you” without putting in the work to really understand what you need understood, then you’re fighting a losing battle. (Think about the kid in the timeout corner waiting for someone to help him understand why he’s so upset.)
4. Be Self-Focused
It sounds counterintuitive and selfish, but conflicts often go awry because the communicator focuses on what the other party does or says. If 90% of your time is focused on the words or actions of the other person, expect most of their response to be focused on defending their words and actions since you’ve given them very little to understand what’s going on with you.
Instead, spend 10% of your time on what they did or said and 90% of your time on how you felt about it and what it made you think about yourself and the relationship. The typical set-up is, “When you _____, I felt _____, which made me think ___________.”
5. Practice Holding
Holding is seeking understanding before being understood. It’s essentially suspending your needs and putting your counterpart in a conflict before yourself. The most common response when someone delivers a conflict is defensiveness. “But what you don’t understand is _____. But it’s because you did _____. But if you knew my intentions were _____.”
Conflicts go sideways because there can only be one person understood at a time. When two people try to be understood at once, conflicts never resolve well.
6. Be Resilient
Holding well usually requires a certain muscle or thick-skinnedness. Resilience just means the ability to withstand the discomfort of someone else thinking poorly of you and even saying inaccurate or unfair things about you. People with low resilience can’t stand when someone says something about them in a conflict they think is wrong. Whereas people with high resilience can allow another person to think and say what they need to in order to fully express what they need understood. They do this because when they “hold” well, they know there will come a time for them to be understood after they understand.
7. Show Compassion and Grace
Lastly, it just helps to have a dollop of compassion and grace when speaking and listening to a person in the middle of a conflict. Having grace for the one you feel hurt by means pre-forgiving them for their offense, so the only thing you need from them is to understand you. Having compassion for the one who is expressing their hurts to you means you can still feel empathy for a person in pain that’s perhaps expressing their pain in hurtful ways.
Resolving conflicts can get messy. Each tip could be its own exercise and challenge. But if you can make just small, simple improvements in each of these areas, you’ll be doing a lot better at making your conflicts opportunities for deeper connections instead of risks for deeper harm in the relationship. If you feel like you could use a little more help or coaching on ways to improve your conflict resolution style, reach out to the church and one of our pastors or counselors can help you take additional steps.
Conflict resolution is a complex task that can be difficult sometimes. To help us experience more satisfying relationships, we are building a conference that will help give you practical tools for many areas in life, including how to improve our relationships. To find out more information or to help come up with topics for our conference, check out Life at the Table.